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Willamette’s Nick Symmonds came close to giving up his sport before his first season

Nick Symmonds celebrates after winning the first of four Division III 800-meter run titles. NCAA Photos archive

The first athlete to win seven career individual titles in Division III men’s outdoor track and field almost quit before claiming his first national championship. 

After his first semester in college, Nick Symmonds contemplated leaving the team and focusing on his studies at Willamette. After all, his family included four generations of doctors, and Symmonds’ goal was to follow in their footsteps.

“I wanted to be a student-athlete and not the other way around,” Symmonds says. “I knew majoring in biochemistry was going to be challenging and that I was going to have to concentrate on my studies.”

The Willamette coaching staff, however, had other ideas. Coach Matt McGuirk sent assistant coach Sam Lapray to visit Symmonds when the freshman returned to campus after winter break.

“I explained to him that I knew people that were less talented than him who had made Olympic teams,” Lapray recalls. “I think that grabbed his attention, as he had never really thought about it that way. He decided to stick to running, and the rest is kind of history.”

While making history wasn’t easy, Symmonds made it look that way. He went on to win every NCAA Division III Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships event he ever ran — the 800 meters in 2003 through 2006 and the 1,500 meters in 2003, 2005 and 2006 — giving him more Division III outdoor titles than any man at that time.

He was favored to win the events each time except for his freshman year, but he pulled off the titles even as a first-year student-athlete.

“I was ranked in the top five in both events heading into the meet but wasn’t the favorite in either one,” Symmonds says. “Both of my coaches wanted me to pick just one event and focus on that at the national meet, but I had run four events in high school, so I begged them to let me run both at NCAAs. Finally, they relented.”

The freshman was going up against Matt Groose of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, the two-time defending champion in the 800 meters. The field of the 1,500 was stacked, as well, and included the 2002 Division III cross country champion, Ryan Bak of Trinity (Connecticut).

Symmonds held off Bak by less than a tenth of a second to win his first NCAA title in the 1,500 meters. Then, less than 45 minutes later, he knocked off Groose by more than half a second to win again.

“He didn’t lose an 800 meters from his sophomore year of high school to after his college career was over,” McGuirk says. “He was just tenacious when it came to winning. He knew how to win and used his talent to raise the bar when he needed to. You just can’t coach that.”

A different challenge arose during Symmonds’ sophomore season, when he endured minor surgery on both knees during winter break. He couldn’t return to training until less than a month before the Division III championships, so after discussions with his coaches, he decided to run only the 800 meters. He still won the event by three-fourths of a second.

Back on the track and healthy as a junior and senior, Symmonds was unmatched in the Division III ranks. In 2005, the Boise, Idaho, native claimed the championship in the 1,500 meters and was dominant in the 800 meters, winning by almost a second and a half over his closest competitor. He also swept both events his senior season to deliver his sixth and seventh national titles.

“The crazy thing is he would have won eight if he wouldn’t have been hurt his sophomore year,” McGuirk says. 

Symmonds held the Division III title record alone for 10 years. In 2016, Salisbury hurdler Luke Campbell tied his seven outdoor championships, winning the 100-meter high hurdles crown for the fourth straight year and the 400-meter hurdles title for a third time.

After graduating in 2006 from Willamette with a degree in biochemistry, Symmonds turned his attention to running full time. He put together a decorated career as a professional middle-distance runner. Symmonds won six U.S. national titles in the 800 meters (2008 through 2012 and 2015), was a member of two Olympic teams (2008 and 2012) and won the silver medal in the 800 at the 2013 IAAF World Championships.

He never did choose to follow his family into a career as a physician. Now retired from running, Symmonds spends his time as co-owner of Run Gum, a caffeinated chewing gum for athletes.

Division III Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships

7 individual titles in a career

  • Nick Symmonds, Willamette: 800-meter run 2003-04-05-06; 1,500-meter run 2003-05-06.
  • Luke Campbell, Salisbury: 100-meter high hurdles 2013-14-15-16; 400-meter hurdles 2014-15-16.

6 individual titles in a career

  • Mike Manders, Hamline: shot put 1980-82-83; discus throw 1980-82-83.

5 individual titles in a career

  • Kip Janvrin, Simpson: 400-meter intermediate hurdles 1988, pole vault 1988, decathlon 1986-87-88.
  • Brandon Jones, Lincoln (PA): 100-meter dash 1992-93-95; 200-meter dash 1992-95.
  • Peter Kosgei, Hamilton: 3,000-meter steeplechase 2007-08-09; 5,000-meter run 2008-09.
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